Martin Luther King gave “The Three Evils of Society” speech on August 31, 1967, at the first and only National Conference on New Politics in Chicago.1
This speech isn’t well-known. It was discovered in Pacifica’s archives in recent years. The dark tone of this address stands in very stark contrast to the speeches we best know MLK for. It is the speech of a man hit hard by the freezing cold reality of disappointment. It is also the speech of a man who, while sobered by dashed hope, is more resolute than ever in his mission to unite a disunited people around human dignity, fairness, and justice.
On the heels of long and unending wars, the post-Great Recession economy, and a new sandstorm of racially-motivated brutality, King’s descriptions of each evil apply, most strikingly, to our present day, more than any decade in the intervening years since the Civil Rights Act of 1965.
Indeed by our very nature we affirm that something new is taking place on the American political horizon. We have come here from the dusty plantations of the Deep South and the depressing ghettos of the North. We have come from the great universities and the flourishing suburbs. We have come from Appalachian poverty and from conscience-stricken wealth.
Yes, something new has been taking place in our political landscape. Whatever we call this new thing, it hasn’t arisen from the election of our first Black president. It isn’t an outgrowth of a very deep recession. While both factor in, they are not causal in nature, even though there are many who, looking at the surface only, would say they are. The dusty plantations of the Deep South are far dustier now. Not only are the depressing ghettos of the North more depressed, they’ve multiplied and scattered across the land, entrapping more peoples. The differences, going from class to class, are starker; the transition more abrupt. Poverty is starker, deeper, more desperate, encompassing, and now radiates far beyond the hauntingly beautiful but weathered and beaten Appalachian Mountains.
But we have come. And we have come here because we share a common concern for the moral health of our nation. We have come because our eyes have seen through the superficial glory and glitter of our society and observed the coming of judgment. Like the prophet of old, we have read the handwriting on the wall. We have seen our nation weighed in the balance of history and found wanting. We have come because we see this as a dark hour in the affairs of men.
For a relatively brief time, at the start of the Great Recession, the people came together in many corners of our nation, in a movement called Occupy. Whatever the reasons, Occupy was short-lived as a national push for change. After a brief intermission of nationwide popular inactivity, in 2012, North Carolinians who saw through the “superficial glory and glitter” and responded to drastic measures enacted by their legislature with the establishment of Moral Monday, led by Reverend Doctor William Barber of that state’s NAACP. The actions of the legislature, signed by Governor Pat McRory, rolled back civil rights achievements by decades, while enacting the nation’s harshest, most reactionary, civil, social, economic, and education policies.2 It is almost past time for the rest of our nation to see through that same superficial glitter and glory and take a stand for the moral health of our entire nation.
For most of us this is a new mood. We are traditionally the idealists. We are the marchers from Mississippi, and Selma, and Washington, who staked our lives on the American Dream during the first half of this decade. Many assembled here campaigned assiduously for Lyndon Johnson in 1964 because we could not stand idly by and watch our nation contaminated by the 18th century policies of Goldwaterism.
America voted and installed her first Black president in 2008. She reaffirmed her choice in 2012. Thanks to the help of a right-leaning Supreme Court and a relentless reactionary push for conservative legislation by moneyed interests in all the Red States, America saw the vision it voted for greatly curtailed, with victories obtained through sheer perseverance and sharp wit, until, ultimately, the obstruction of government from 2010 to 2014 became paralysis in 2015. The Goldwaterism of yesteryear is today’s Libertarian Tea Party doctrine.
We were the hardcore activists who were willing to believe that Southerners could be reconstructed in the constitutional image. We were the dreamers of a dream that dark yesterdays of man’s inhumanity to man would soon be transformed into bright tomorrows of justice.
Real progress was made during the first two decades since Dr. King’s all too brief life among us. It continued throughout the next thirty years, but the advent of Ronald Reagan’s Southern Strategy, followed by Clintonian triangulation in the 1990’s, would have stark implications on our most vulnerable citizens when our economy almost went into a tailspin in the late 00’s. The progress and prosperity achieved during that decade came at the price of an almost complete transfer of power to the nation’s financial sector. Over the next decade, what had begun as a religious culture war in the 80’s, gained enough steam to become a disrupting force starting in 2010. What began as Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, eventually became the Tea Party. That movement has absorbed and now is the Grand Old Party. In the Red States, the power rests exclusively with fundamentalist neoconservatives, thanks to their careful gerrymandering, over decades. Today, by most accounts, we are no longer the democracy we once were. There is even a research study that shows we have become an oligarchy.
Since 2010, and after a decades-long slow simmer of activity, we’ve also been witnessing the rapid explosion onto the scene of a new Jim Crow era of racially-motivated brutality alongside the arming of America’s populace, mass-incarceration, and school to prison pipeline. As hundreds of Black men and women die by a police officer’s gun or are wrongfully-convicted of crimes each year, so are poor whites, but at a far lower proportion.
King referred to a particular kind of racism, practiced in particular ways, in America’s South. The “dark yesterdays of man’s inhumanity,” if they were ever really exclusive, found their way north and west and are indistinguishable from the South’s in nature and intensity, with the added twist of the police state as its main perpetrator. The surveillance state, which was revealed to us by a dissenter in 2014, continues mostly unfettered and uncontested by both political parties.
Now, it is hard to escape the disillusionment of betrayal. Our hopes have been blasted and our dreams have been shattered. The promise of a Great Society was shipwrecked off the coast of Asia, on the dreadful peninsula of Vietnam. The poor, black and white, are still perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. What happens to a dream deferred? It leads to bewildering frustration and corroding bitterness.
King would be especially horrified at the tenor and focus of today’s politics. While I think he would be taken aback by the renewed vengeance with which racism is rearing its ugliness, he would be greatly disturbed by the unambiguous shamelessness with which it is waged. He would be as appalled at the fierceness with which our nation’s social contract is being undone by Republicans, as by the wide support of those who claim to represent the piously devout side of America. He would be alarmed by the hold of certain industries on civil life and the inability of anyone to stop the free-flow of arms and ammunition into the general population, even as children are massacred.
Most of all, King would be saddened at the lack of initiative by our current Democratic leaders and the near-acquiescence of the Democratic Party embodied in the absence of a general mobilization of the people to begin pushing back. I believe King would wholeheartedly have supported Reverend Doctor Barbour in his effort to begin a cross-racial movement for change. He would have insisted that all grassroots organizations stand behind it, promoting it, growing it, appealing to all of America’s people to join together in harmony and in defense of the principles of democracy.
He would be especially sad and disappointed that poverty is so much more generalized and that America now distinguishes itself as the leader in poverty and child hunger, and that its conservative leadership can count that status as a one of the crowning policy achievements of the obstruction they have imposed on our nation’s government.
While, in the passage above, King was referring to the Vietnam War, “The promise of a Great Society was shipwrecked off the coast of Asia” a second time when unions were diminished into near-oblivion and millions of American jobs offshored thanks to bi-partisan neoliberal triangulation and machinations that paved the way for the plunder of America’s manufacturing base by rapacious private equity concerns, the flight of untaxed capital and multi-national trade agreements, all to the detriment of middle and working classes that are now decimated. King, undoubtedly, would stand in strongest opposition to the secretly-negotiated Trans Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP) that is now awaiting congressional approval.
The Reverend King would be especially proud of Moral Monday’s goals. He would support all nationwide grassroots efforts to get the money and corruption out of our politics. He would be especially proud of Alicia Garza and Sonia Sanchez, the two women who devised Black Lives Matter, and their followers all around the nation. King would be proud of the tireless work of congressional progressive and black caucuses. He would be sad at their relative lack of power within the Democratic party, given their popular support.
Most of all, King would constantly remind us of our common dream deferred while keeping our principles and ideals in sharp focus, unrelentingly and unflinchingly leading us back to it. We don’t have a present-day MLK, and while we have no one whose vision and purpose are as clear and strong as his were, we must elect leaders whose moral compass is as unwavering as his was. We would not be where we are today had we, at the very least, seen to that.
Dr. King understood that our destiny is a common one. He understood that the needs and goals of all communities are the same. Abject poverty and hunger, whether suffered by whites or Blacks, have the same devastating detrimental effects. He knew, as we all innately do, that success need not be at the expense of anyone else. Those who still divide us were frightened that Dr. King’s message of cross-racial unity and purpose would get through. Dr. King knew that the answer lay in what James Baldwin so beautifully and eloquently described:
“If we- and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others- do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world”
Now that spring has started, Moral Monday, Black Lives Matter, what is left of Occupy must, together, gather the relatively conscious whites and Blacks and finally merge them together to end the bewildering frustration and corroding bitterness of a common dream deferred.
Video and and quoted text of
The Three Evils of Society
“Indeed by our very nature we affirm that something new is taking place on the American political horizon. We have come here from the dusty plantations of the Deep South and the depressing ghettos of the North. We have come from the great universities and the flourishing suburbs. We have come from Appalachian poverty and from conscience stricken wealth. But we have come. And we have come here because we share a common concern for the moral health of our nation. We have come because our eyes have seen through the superficial glory and glitter of our society and observed the coming of judgment. Like the prophet of old, we have read the handwriting on the wall. We have seen our nation weighed in the balance of history and found wanting. We have come because we see this as a dark hour in the affairs of men. For most of us this is a new mood. We are traditionally the idealists. We are the marchers from Mississippi, and Selma, and Washington, who staked our lives on the American Dream during the first half of this decade. Many assembled here campaigned assiduously for Lyndon Johnson in 1964 because we could not stand idly by and watch our nation contaminated by the 18th century policies of Goldwaterism. We were the hardcore activists who were willing to believe that Southerners could be reconstructed in the constitutional image. We were the dreamers of a dream that dark yesterdays of man’s inhumanity to man would soon be transformed into bright tomorrows of justice. Now, it is hard to escape the disillusionment of betrayal. Our hopes have been blasted and our dreams have been shattered. The promise of a Great Society was shipwrecked off the coast of Asia, on the dreadful peninsula of Vietnam. The poor, black and white, are still perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. What happens to a dream deferred? It leads to bewildering frustration and corroding bitterness.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
Full transcript of speech:
[scribd id=134362247 key=key-yarr9xnks81s7iqm1ke mode=scroll]
- The National Conference for New Politics (NCNP) took place in Chicago’s Palmer House over Labor Day weekend in 1967 and featured Martin Luther King, Jr. as the keynote speaker. Around 3,000 people, from hundreds of organizations, attended the conference. The goal was to unify political activists of all races who believed in civil rights and opposed the Vietnam War. President Lyndon B. Johnson felt so threatened by the conference, he instructed the FBI to attempt to track the attendants’ movements and thwart any long-term plans of the NCNP.
Source: Palermo, J. A. (2001). In his own right: the political odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. New York: Columbia University Press. Source: http://www.buttonmuseum.org/buttons/national-conference-new-politics
- Moral Mondays are protests in North Carolina, United States of America. The protests are in response to several drastic actions by the government of North Carolina elected into office by the citizens of North Carolina in 2013. The protests are characterized by engaging in civil disobedience by entering the state legislature building and then being peacefully arrested. The movement protests many wide ranging issues under the blanket of unfair treatment, discrimination, and adverse effects of government legislation on the citizens of North Carolina. The protests in North Carolina launched a grassroots social justice movement that, in 2014, spread to Georgia and South Carolina, and then to other U.S. states.